Postmodern Architecture: The Birth of Kitsch

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Postmodernism has a different attitude to mass culture. Modernism had drawn rigid distinctions between high and low culture.

Postmodernism was one of the most significant cultural developments of the twentieth century. In the fields of architecture and design it can best be understood as a reaction against the Modern Movement of the early twentieth century.

Architects began to find the Modernist vocabulary restrictive. They grew bored with the sterile, puritan forms. This shift was signaled by two famous statements. The Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe had coined the phrase ‘Less is more,’ meaning that decoration and detail had to be stripped away. The postmodernist architect Robert Venturi responded with the phrase ‘Less is a bore’. The faith in a universal aesthetic was shattered. Postmodernism marks a return to colour, variety and historical reference.

In particular, Postmodernism has a different attitude to mass culture. Modernism had drawn rigid distinctions between high and low culture. The Modernist art critic Clement Greenberg published an influential essay entitled ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’, which makes a distinction between high culture (such as opera, abstract art and indeed Modernism) and low culture (television, Hollywood movies and so on). He argues that high culture is the preserve of a privileged, educated few and that popular culture represents a lowering of standards, which he calls this the ‘democratization of culture under industrialisation.’

This is an elitist view that is challenged by Postmodernism and its enthusiasm for mass culture. Postmodernism actively celebrates kitsch (a German term for cheap, tacky artifacts) because it is a language that everyone can understand. For example, the Disney Corporation has been hiring famous postmodernist architects for the last few decades. The Eisner Building was designed by Michael Graves. It features the Seven Dwarfs in place of the caryatids found in Ancient Greek buildings. 

This is how the device looks in genuine ancient Greek architecture - the Erechthium at Athens, which has columns sculpted into the form of female figures.  Michael Graves has appropriated this device, but altered it to create in a parody of Classicism.

Postmodernism blurs the boundaries between high and low art. This is a tooth brush by the designer Phillipe Starke. It’s based on Constantine Brancusi’s Modernist sculpture Bird in Space. The toothbrush recycles the form, turning it into an ordinary consumer item, but still stands the object on a pedestal to suggest that art objects are no different to consumer goods - they’re all bought and sold.

Phillipe Starck is an eccentric designer with a pop star sensibility. He apparently keeps a motorbike in every European capital city in case he needs it. He promotes a star persona around himself and claims to be able to design a chair in fifteen minutes. Starck has done a lot of work for Alessi, the Italian design firm. This is his famous lemon squeezer designed for Alessi (1990). The form is inspired by 1950s sci-fi imagery. It looks like the tripods in War of the Worlds. The form has very little relationship to the function. Even Alessi recommends this piece for display rather than use, which means that it doesn’t work very well. It challenges the Modernist idea that form should follow function. Here the form is drawn from popular culture.

Alessi employs a many postmodernist architects and designers. This is a teapot by Michael Graves. It is based on old Bauhaus designs, using simple geometry in the basic form of a cone, but it supplements it with plastic appendages in bright colours. They look like children’s toys. They challenge the puritan aesthetic of Modernism; they’re saying that design doesn’t have to be functional, it can just be fun. There is no attempt to justify them with functionalism.

To conclude, the 1970s architects became disillusioned with Modernism. The reaction against it was known as postmodernism. Architects began to challenge the puritan Modernist aesthetic by using historical styles, colour and pop cultural imagery. On a deeper level, it was argued that the world had been transformed by the information explosion, the rise of the mass media. Architecture had to reflect the diversity of culture, so architects adopted a hybrid aesthetic – they used multiple styles simultaneously in order to reflect the diverse, hybridised nature of postmodern existence.


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